The Student Enrichment Program (SEP) of Western Oregon University serves first-generation, low-income, and disabled students. These students are in the minority in many colleges and universities, but at WOU, they make up 65 percent of the student body. Thanks to SEP, they have the opportunity to overcome their challenges and perform as well as their peers.
To participate in SEP, students have to qualify according to federal guidelines and submit an application to the program. Once they are enrolled in SEP, their adjustment to life at the university begins. Whether they are new or transfer students, they are offered a number of free, accredited courses, such as Summer Bridge, that teach them strategies for success in college.
Ideally, SEP students meet with one of the program’s advisors twice each term. In the first two weeks, advisors ensure that students are comfortable with their classes and have practical plans and goals for the rest of the term. If students fail to meet with their SEP advisors, they often have difficulty around dead week and finals, according to SEP Project Director Marshall Guthrie. “It’s all well and good to ask for help, but it’s much better to do it at the beginning of the term when you’ve got ten weeks to make a change,” Guthrie said. He and the other advisors encourage students to meet with them again after midterms to discuss how their classes are going and to prepare for registration.
SEP advisors are not strictly academic advisors, nor can they remove students’ registration holds. Their services supplement regular advising requirements. As a result, SEP students receive support and advice from at least two sources – three for those who are registered with the Office of Disability Services – as opposed to the single advisor that many of their peers have. Creating this extended system of support is one of SEP’s goals.
Guthrie uses the experiences of multi-billionaires Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who both quit college, to illustrate the importance of forming support groups. “The reason that they were able to succeed was because they had whole teams full of college graduates behind them helping them out,” he said. “They built a support system. So I encourage students to have that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates mentality…and when people want to help you, saying yes.” SEP advises students to accept help and to establish a group of supportive friends and advisors. “That ‘I’m going to do it on my own’ attitude is the antithesis of what we’re trying to do,” Guthrie said.
SEP exists to support students through all the frustrating and intimidating aspects of attending college. From explaining financial aid to answering questions that first-generation students cannot ask their parents to helping disabled students work around their disabilities, the advisors make sure that no one who needs their help has to navigate the university system alone.
The result of SEP’s efforts is that their students are at the same social and academic level as the rest of the student population, according to Guthrie. SEP students not only perform well in their classes but also lead clubs, volunteer, work on campus, and form close friendships and support groups. “I just wish more people knew our students,” said Guthrie. “I’m always really impressed at the quality of student that enters, and I’m even more impressed at the quality of student that graduates.”
Guthrie, who was once a low-income and first-generation student himself, is pleased to see large numbers of low-income, first-generation, and disabled students graduating from WOU. SEP’s support and the students’ own hard work and determination allow them to leave the university equipped with valuable skills and self-confidence.